It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Park Your Brain At The Door

I went to see the new Star Trek film last night. Most reviews I’ve read have said it’s very good. But not all of them – see here, here and here.

I thought it was complete nonsense.

It looks good – mostly. The special effects are state-of-the-art. The cast all do a good job with their parts, although Karl Urban probably nails the essence of Bones McCoy from the original cast better than the others do with their roles. And yes, Simon Pegg’s Scottish accent is a bit suspect.

I’ll forgive the “sounds in space” thing. It’s scientifically impossible, but it’s become a convention of science fiction cinema. And I’ll willingly suspend my disbelief for the black hole which allows Spock and the Romulan Nero to travel back in time. Likewise for the “red matter”. It’s a daft idea, but it’s a maguffin in a science fiction film so it doesn’t really matter.


There are many things I didn’t like in Star Trek – not just in the science, but in the plotting, the characterisation…. They played Chekov as a joke, which was not entirely fair. And quite a bit of the humour in the film appeared at strangely inappropriate moments. I’m all for livening up scenes with a bit of wit, but some of the jokes in Star Trek just seemed to fall flat.

And then there are the outright stupidities. The following comments will necessarily include spoilers.

If you stick a spaceship on top of a chemical planet, it doesn’t look like a spaceship dock. It looks like a chemical plant with a spaceship stuck on top of it. Far too much of Star Trek was filmed inside a chemical plant. Those scenes looked like they belonged in some cheap straight-to-DVD sf movie.

James T Kirk is about to be drummed out of Starfleet Academy for cheating on the Kobayashi Maru test. But then evil Romulan Nero appears, and he gets smuggled aboard Starfleet’s new flagship, the Enterprise, and – sigh – goes on to win the day. So at the end of the film, they pin a medal on Kirk’s chest and make him captain of the Enterprise. Hang on. He’s a cadet. He didn’t even graduate. And they make him the captain of their best ship?

And speaking of cadets being unfeasibly promoted to high rank: Dr Bones McCoy is also a Starfleet cadet, but when the trouble caused by Nero kicks off, he is assigned to the Enterprise as Senior Medical Officer. A cadet as a Senior Medical Officer? Where do they get the junior ones from? Kindergarten?

And then there’s Scotty. He’s no longer an engineer but an engineer and a genius theoretical physicist. But Starfleet still exile him to some out of the way planet – Delta Vega, in fact (see later) – because of an experiment/prank that went a bit wrong. But then they give command of their flagship to a cadet, so why not exile their best brains?

Oh, and did I mention that Kirk is also described as “genius-level”? He had me fooled.

The planet Romulus is destroyed by a supernova which “threatens the galaxy”. Must have been a pretty big star which exploded, then. The Milky Way contains approximately 200 billion stars. And some of them are huge. But not big enough to destroy all the other 199,999,999,9999 or so stars should they turn supernova. But the silliness doesn’t end there. Earth’s nearest star – other than the Sun – is Alpha Centauri, which is 4.24 light years away. If Alpha Centauri went supernova, and its wavefront were powerful enough to destroy the Earth over that great a distance, it would still take four years and three months to reach here. That’s plenty of time to find a solution if you’re as advanced as the Romulan Empire or the Federation.

It’s fortunate Romulan mining ships are as well armed as battleships. Otherwise Nero would have had trouble exacting his revenge. It’s also fortunate they’re absolutely enormous and very spiky – even though their “mining” seems to consist of dangling a platform in the planet’s atmosphere. Which is, well, illogical. Since they need to keep the platform’s giant laser firing at the same spot on the planet’s surface, the ship would need to be in geosynchronous orbit. For Earth, that’s 35,786 km above mean sea level. Space effectively begins 100 km above sea level (travel higher than that and you can officially call yourself an astronaut). So at the very least the Romulan ship needs a cable that is 37,686 km long. In the film, you can see the ship from the platform. It’s a big ship but not that big.

When Kirk and Sulu fall from the mining platform dangling in Vulcan’s atmosphere, and Kirk’s parachute is ripped from his back – I think they should make them a bit sturdier like, well, like present day parachutes – Chekov manages to transport them as they fall… So, they’d hit the transporter pad with the same velocity at which they were falling. Which would make for a nice splat and a somewhat abrupt end to the film. Or perhaps – and this is probably what earlier Trek films would have done – they’d have mentioned something about converting their velocity into energy in the transporter buffer or something. You know, completely bogus science. But at least they’d have made an effort to explain why the conservation of momentum didn’t apply. Whatever they did, Kirk and Sulu wouldn’t have hit the transporter pad as if they’d just dropped a metre.

Spock is marooned on the world of Delta Vega, and from there he sees the destruction of Vulcan. The two planets are not celestial neighbours, like the Earth and Moon. Which means Spock must have amazing eyesight in order to magnify a view of a planet located at least several light years away. And time-travelling eyes too, in order to see the destruction in real time rather than many years later when the light actually reaches him.

So, not so much a reboot as a lobotomy. It has been said – by John Scalzi among others – that it’s a bit silly to expect correct science in a Star Trek film. But I disagree. There’s no reason why Abrams had to get it so wrong. The sfnal devices – time travel through black holes, red matter – are maguffins to make the plot work. Giving command of the flagship to a cadet is rank stupidity. Suggesting that you can see a planet implode from another planet in an entirely different system is rank stupidity. Imagining that a mining ship will have sufficient armament to defeat the whole of Starfleet is rank stupidity. It is, when you think about it, insulting. The makers of Star Trek clearly have nothing but contempt for their audience.

As if all that weren’t bad enough… I saw in the foyer of the cinema something which persuades me Hollywood holds people in even greater disdain than I could have possibly imagined…. G-Force. “Gizmos, Gadgets and Guinea Pigs”. Yes, Disney have made a film about anthropomorphised guinea pig secret agents. And one of them is supposed to be a femme fatale spy. Yes, that’s a sexy female guinea pig. Voiced by Penélope Cruz.

Western civilisation is well and truly doomed.


Fighting Talk…

We all know what arguing on the Internet is like, but none of us can stay away when someone is wrong. Here are a few opinions I hold which often provoke a response in sf forums:

1. Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is an excellent film, but the novel on which it was based – by Robert Heinlein – is right-wing rubbish.

2. The sequels to Frank Herbert’s Dune do not decline in quality. In fact, the sequels are better-written books than Dune. (Until, that is, you get to the ones written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson, which are appalling.)

3. The Wrath Of Khan is not the best Star Trek film. Its sequel, The Search For Spock, is a much better film.

Now discuss.


50 Essential SF Films

Time Out have put together a very strange list of their 50 essential sf films here (with nods to here and here). It does not include dystopias, for some completely arbitrary reason – so no Blade Runner or Fahrenheit 451. Their list is… silly. Cherry 2000? Howard the Duck? Battlefield Earth? If shiteness is an essental quality of sf cinema, then perhaps they do belong on the list. I, however, believe otherwise.

So I shall do the blog-worthy thing, and present my own list. And I will include dystopias. For as good a reason as Time Out excluded them from their list: because I want to.

Here then is my list of 50 essential sciencefiction films – in alphabetical order. Oh, and it is exactly 50 films. Rather than cheat and feature an entire franchise – Star Wars, Star Trek – I’ve picked the best of each. There is some overlap with the Time Out list.

2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968) – still a high-water mark for sf films. It possesses a grandeur unmatched by few other genre movies.
A Clockwork Orange, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1971) – it’s essential because it shows that sf is not all spaceships and robots; it’s essential because it shows that sf can be brutal (not violent, brutal) ; it’s essential because it shows that sf can be also for adults.
Abre los Ojos, dir. Alejandro Amenábar (1997) – ignore inferior remakes, this is an original piece of sf film-making.
Alien, dir. Ridley Scott (1979) – the first and still the best of the franchise.
Avalon, dir. Mamoru Oshii (2001) – perhaps the central premise is not the most original in the world – but then what sf film does feature an entirely original premise? – but in parts of this film, the presentation of it is jaw-dropping.
Back to the Future, dir. Robert Zemeckis (1985) – sf can be family entertainment too. And without being brainless.
Battle Beyond the Stars, dir. Jimmy T Murakami (1980) – although clearly made to cash in on Star Wars, the plot was ripped from The Seven Samurai by way of The Magnificent Seven (Robert Vaughan even reprises his role). It manages to transcend its origins just a tiny little bit.
Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott (1982) – I need say nothing about this film. Its presence here is a given.
Brazil, dir. Terry Gilliam (1985) – if George Orwell had not been so po-faced, he would have written Brazil. Ironic that it took an American to make a more English version of 1984 – totalitarianism is not frightening, it is absurd. See, sf doesn’t need to ignore politics, either.
Children of Men, dir. Alfonson Cuarón (2006) – the book was mediocre, the film is very good.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, dir. Steven Spielberg (1977) – this film is too iconic to ignore it, although it has not aged entirely gracefully.
Dark City, dir. Alex Proyas (1998) – oh dear, what happened? Proyas went from this great little film to… I, Robot.
Delicatessen, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro (1991) – sf can be very funny too, without being like Spaceballs. Poking fun at sf for humour’s sake is easy: it’s a huge target. But making something humorous and sf is much harder. Delicatessen does it superbly.
Destination Moon, dir. Irving Pichel (1950) – before the Americans went to the Moon for real, they went to the Moon on celluloid. They got quite a bit wrong in this film, but it’s a fascinating look at the thinking of the time on the subject.
Dune, dir. David Lynch (1984) – as adaptations of novels go, this one isn’t good. But as a realisation of the Dune universe, it beats all. Frank Herbert’s series of novels will forever be coloured by this film’s production design. And yet it could have been so good: there are moments of true greatness in it. And some really dumb bits, too.
Fahrenheit 451, dir. François Truffaut (1966) – the book is dull, but the film is weirdly engrossing.
Flash Gordon, dir. Mike Hodges (1980) – everything that sf fans hate about the public’s perception of the genre is in Flash Gordon. It’s as camp as a row of tents. It has stupid costumes and stupid lines and a universe that makes no sense. It is full of British thesps hamming it up so much Brian Blessed’s performance doesn’t even stand out as over-the-top. And yet… it’s great fun.
Forbidden Planet, dir. Fred M Wilcox (1956) – if you dismissed this as just another 1950s studio cash-in on sf, like This Island Earth for example, you’d be doing it a disservice. It’s a clever story, put together with state-of-the-art (of the time) effects. Okay, so the robot is silly, and Altaira’s wardrobe looks like it belongs in a bad B-movie… but it’s definitely an essential classic.
Galaxy of Terror, dir. Bruce Clark (1981) – sometimes cash-in films transcend the profit motive. Forbidden Planet did. And so does Galaxy of Terror. The sfx are a bit ropey, but the climax of the story makes up for it.
Independence Day, dir. Roland Emmerich (1996) – some films are events. This one was. Even though it’s brainless family entertainment, and everything a sf film doesn’t have to be.
La Jetée, dir. Chris Marker (1962) – some films transcend the media, and that’s what this one does. It is narrated; it is composed of black & white still photographs. And yet its power is undiminished.
Metropolis, dir. Fritz Lang (1927) – I shouldn’t need to explain or defend this film’s inclusion.
Naked Lunch, dir. David Cronenberg (1991) – it could be argued that William S Burrough’s work is not sf, but never mind. As adaptations of unfilmable novels go, this is one of the best.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, dir. Michael Radford (1984) – sometimes it was hard to tell the 1970s and 1984 apart; sometimes it was hard to tell the early part of this century and 1984 apart. Happily, we have this film to do it for us.
Pitch Black, dir. David N Twohy (2000) – a taut little sf movie, and so unlike its bloated sequel. It’s one of those films where the one-sentence, er, pitch tells you everything you need to know about it. More sf films should be made with that as an objective.
Planet of the Apes, dir. Franklin J Schaffner (1968) – too iconic to ignore.
Possible Worlds, dir. Robert LePage (2000) – another film that bucks the sf as brainless family entertainment trend, and so deserves to be on any self-respecting list.
Primer, dir. Shane Carruth (2004) – sf does not have to have multi-million dollar sfx budgets. Nor does it have to be heroically stupid. Admittedly, you can go too far in the other direction – certainly Primer‘s plot is likely to cause sustained bouts of head-scratching….
Queen of Blood, dir. Curtis Harrington (1966) – cobbled together from footage from Soviet sf film Nebo Zovyot, with inserts filmed in the US with a US cast (plus Basil Rathbone), this still manages to be a surprisingly modern film. I wrote about it here.
Repo Man, dir. Alex Cox (1984) – before there was guerilla film-making there was this: a cheap and cheerful movie that manages to celebrate its ideas in every frame.
Rollerball, dir. Norman Jewison (1975) – the future we deserved but never got: all those mainframe data centres and architecture by Oscar Niemeyer, not to mention the corporate oligarchy and plebian bread and circuses. Well, we got some of it. Ignore the silly eponymous sport, look at the world Jewison shows us.
Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow, dir. Kerry Conran (2004) – another film with a future we deserved – airships, giant rockets, giant robots…. This film looks fantastic, but perhaps marrying its astonishing visuals with pulp story-telling was not the best way to do it. Nonetheless, it’s essential.
Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky (1972) – ignore inferior remakes. Tarkovsky is, I admit, an acquired taste and perhaps unsuited to the modern multiplex moviegoer, but this remains a powerful piece of film-making.
Stalker, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky (1979) – and Tarkovsky’s Stalker – an adaption of a novel by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky – is arguably even better than Solaris.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture, dir. Robert Wise (1979) – received wisdom would have it that Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan is the best of the franchise. It’s not, it’s a bloated television episode. Unfortunately, The Motion Picture is not the best either. But it is the most outright cinematic of them, cunningly hiding its television origins. Its pace may be glacial, but the presence of two Tarkovsky films on this list should have told you I don’t consider that necessarily bad.
Star Wars 5: The Empire Strikes Back, dir. Irvin Kershner (1980) – easily the best of the lot, thanks to a sharp script by Leigh Brackett. And Kershner, unlike Lucas, managed to get good performances out of his cast.
Starship Troopers, dir. Paul Verhoeven (1997) – a superb satire of Heinlein’s novel. The sight of Doogie Howser in a Nazi greatcoat has to be one of the biggest sensawunda moments of 1990s sf cinema.
The Abyss, dir. James Cameron (1989) – there’s an earnestness to this film which still appeals today, and the special effects still – ahem – hold water. Perhaps the ending is somewhat difficult to swallow, but this remains one of the best first contact films made.
The Day the Earth Stood Still, dir. Robert Wise (1951) – back in the day, they used to make thoughtful sf films with little in the way of gosh-wow special effects. Okay, so perhaps the story is a little simplistic and implausible, but it’s considerably closer to the people in it than your average modern-day soulless blockbuster.
The Fifth Element, dir. Luc Besson (1997) – this is not so much a film as a moving comic. It’s very colourful, it’s very silly, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and the characters are painted with the same bright palette as the backgrounds. But it’s still a lot fun. And you can’t go wrong with a space opera with European sensibilities. More space operas should have European sensibilities, in fact.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, dir. Nicolas Roeg (1976) – also too iconic to ignore, if only for Bowie in the title role.
The Matrix, dir. Larry & Andy Wachowski (1999) – ignore all inferior sequels. This was an astonishing film when it was released and we should remember it for that.
The Mysterians, dir. Ishiro Honda (1957) – a Japanese sf film from last century which is not structured around some recurring hero or monster is deserving of note. In all other respects, this is as strange as the many Gojira, Gamera or Starman films.
The Silent Star, dir. Kurt Maetzig (1960) – the second sf film produced by the East German DEFA studios, and it’s clearly not the product of western capitalist minds. The production design is amazing. I wrote a bit about it here.
The Terminator, dir. James Cameron (1984) – ignore all inferior sequels. This is a taut action sf film, with little pretensions and little need for any.
The Thing, dir. John Carpenter (1982) – the original had an earnest silliness about it; this one translated that into gore. It made aliens on Earth just as scary as the ones in spaceships.
The Time Machine, dir. George Pal (1960) – another iconic film, although it’s scuppered a little by 1960s sensibilities – silly lines like “How do the women of your time wear their hair?”
Things to Come, dir. William Cameron Menzies (1936) – not to be confused with the similarly-titled The Shape of Things to Come from 1979 which a) bears no resemblance to HG Wells’ novel, and b) is astonishly crap. Menzies’ version, however, is just an astonishing piece of early cinema.
Twelve Monkeys, dir. Terry Gilliam (1995) – Back to the Future proved that audiences could follow twisted time-travelling narratives; Twelve Monkeys pushed it even further, and still remained entertaining drama.
Until the End of the World, dir. Wim Wenders (1991) – this was the first film which for me made the future seem like a real place. Admittedly, its future is a little quaint these days, and the actual story feels like two stories badly welded together, but it is still as Wenders intended it: the “ultimate road movie”. I wrote about it here.


Reading & Watching Roundup

Since my last round-up, I have read the following books and watched the following films.

The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison (1961), was one for the reading challenge – see here.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Earth Shall Overcome, by a whole bunch of people (2009). Don’t ask me why, but I quite like the Guardians of the Galaxy. For one thing, they’re a purely science-fictional superhero group – a 1,000-year-old astronaut with psychic powers, a soldier from a high-gravity planet, a silica-based man, and a blue barbarian with a “magic” bow. Oh, and there’s the mysterious Starhawk, “One Who Knows”, as well. Sadly, this collection, gathering the GotG’s first appearances is not very good at all. The writing is terrible and the art is perfunctory. Apart from their 1968 debut title, the other stories in Earth Shall Overcome are shared titles with The Thing and Captain America, neither of whom I particularly like. It’s easy to understand why there was a 8-year gap between the group’s first and subsequent appearances.

Kingdom Come, Alex Ross & Mark Waid (1996). I had in the past dismissed DC as less interesting than Marvel – well, it’s hard not to think of its core superheroes as clichés. But Identity Crisis made me reconsider my opinion on DC. And while Justice was a little muddled, Kingdom Come certainly demonstrates that DC has done some interesting things with its core cast. In this one, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and various others have all retired, and now a new breed of superhero, one which doesn’t care much about normal humans, has taken over. Things take a turn for the worse, and Superman is persuaded out of retirement. Waid has done a good job of making rounded characters of the stars of DC’s stable, and Ross’s art is, as usual, gorgeous.

Alice in Sunderland, Bryan Talbot (2007), was nominated for the BSFA Award last year but lost out to Ian Macdonald’s Brasyl. It was, I believe, the first graphic novel to ever make the BSFA Award shortlist. And it’s easy to see why. The fact that Alice in Sunderland is a book with pictures on every page seems almost incidental – it’s a discussion of Lewis Carroll’s life, his links to Sunderland, the history of Sunderland, and modern Sunderland’s rich artistic heritage. Excellent stuff.

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K Dick (1977), is No 20 in the SF Masterwork series. I’m not that big a PKD fan. Most of his novels I find not very good and instantly forgettable. Admittedly, he did write one of my favourite short stories, ‘A Little Something For Us Tempunauts’, but the bulk of his output leaves me unimpressed. But this one is good. Perhaps because it’s only peripherally sf. It’s about junkies and junkie culture and junkie paranoia – what little sf there is in it merely enables the story. The absurdities are nicely handled, the characterisation is a cut above most sf novels of the period, and it’s very funny. I also can’t think of anyone else better suited to play Barris than Robert Downey Jr – who did so in the Richard Linklater film. It’s almost as if he’d been born to play the role.

The Memoirs of a Survivor, Doris Lessing (1974), is set in a post-apocalyptic London. The narrator is a middle-aged woman who lives alone in a flat. Then a young girl, Emily, is dumped on her, and the narrator has to look after her. Meanwhile, outside the flat the world slowly falls apart. The narrator watches Emily grow up, watches her as she joins a gang of youths trying to form some sort of Survivors-type community, led by a young man called Gerald (and when did you ever come across a hero called Gerald?). The narrator also discovers that she can explore a dream-like alternate reality which she can see through one wall of her flat. This is not the most… compelling of novels. It’s also peculiarly old-fashioned – not just the name Gerald – but Emily behaves in a fashion better suited to a 1930s novel than a 1970s one. To be honest, it was a bit of a slog.

Starfall, Stephen Baxter (2009), is a new novella from PS Publishing set in Baxter’s Xeelee sequence. This one is set early in the universe’s history – humanity has an interstellar empire but has yet to be subjugated by any alien races. They’ll quite happily subjugate themselves, thank you very much. But the inhabitants of the colonies are not too happy about this, and put together a plan to attack Earth sixty years hence. The nature of the story – fast-forwarding through the decades to the actual attack – means Starfall occasionally reads more like a synopsis than a novella. But Baxter is very good at this stuff, so it all hangs together entertainingly.

Last And First Men, Olaf Stapledon (1931), I read for the LT sf reading group. It’s not a novel per se, more a dry telling of humanity’s future history for the next two billion years. Reading the book, I kept on picturing 1920s visions of the future, as seen in, for example, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – great mile-high skyscrapers with runways on every tenth floor. Another film the book brought to mind is William Cameron Menzies’ Things To Come. Unfortunately, while the prose successfully depicts the vast scale of the story, it makes for an uninvolving tale. There are bits which would have made really interesting novels, but they’re dealt with in a couple of sentences or a paragraph or two. There really isn’t any other sf novel like Last And First Men, and I’m glad I read it… but it’ll be a while before I try reading it again.

Ran, dir. Akira Kurosawa (1985), is essentially King Lear in feudal Japan. I know Kurosawa is considered one of the great directors of all time, and I’ve seen several of his films… but I just don’t get it. I don’t find his movies all that engrossing or beautifully shot. I’ll sit and watch them, but I don’t find them as visually stunning as Tarkovsky’s films, or as fiercely intelligent as Ingmar Bergman’s, or as perfectly put together as Kieslowski’s…

Duets, dir. Bruce Paltrow (2000), was a rewatch; and afterwards I wondered why I’d ever bought the DVD in the first place. It’s about karaoke, and stars Huey Lewis, Maria Bello, Gwyneth Paltrow, André Braugher and Paul Giamatti. It’s… inconsequential. They’re all karaoke singers, working their way towards the $5,000 big competition in Omaha, all with stories. It’s a bit like American Idol, but with a plot. And slightly better singers.

The Sentinel, dir. Clark Johnson (2006), is a routine thriller. Michael Douglas plays an ageing Secret Service agent who is set up as the villain of a plot to assassinate the president. So he flees and tries to uncover the plot all by himself. And succeeds. Sigh. It’s a bit like those US crime television programmes – it doesn’t matter if the police are useless because they’ve got attorneys, crime writers, book shop owners, forensic pathologists, private investigators and high school students, among others, to solve crimes. Unlike us Brits, who only have private detectives, the police, and little old ladies…

Twisted, dir. Philip Kaufman (2004), is a not very good thriller. Ashley Judd is a San Francisco homicide inspector. She is assigned to a murder. It turns out she knew the deceased – she enjoys casual sex with strangers, and he was one of her lovers. And so was the next victim. And the victim after that. So she goes from investigating detective to chief suspect. But it’s all a plot to frame her, and the “twist” – the identity of the villain of the piece – comes as no real surprise.

Complicity, dir. Gavin Millar (2000), on the other hand, is a very good thriller. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Iain Banks. This was a rewatch and, unfortunately, it’s one of those films that you can’t really watch more than once. An important part of the plot is the identity of the person who has been killing arms dealers, corrupt politicians, and the like… and if you’ve seen it before (or read the book recently), knowing his identity from the start does spoil things a bit.

Raging Bull, dir. Martin Scorsese (1980). I used to like Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino. And then I saw Mean Streets and The Departed and realised he’s been making the same film over and over again. You know the one: foul-mouthed wiseguys, starring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Raging Bull is much the same, although it’s about a boxer – Jake La Motta. The period detail is done well, but it still seems like a film about foul-mouthed wiseguys in boxing gloves.

The Crimson Rivers, dir. Mathieu Kassovitz (2000), I remember being impressed by this when I first watched it. And it is good. Up to a point. And that point is about two-thirds of the way through the film, when the story suddenly makes a jump the viewers can’t follow. There’s a conspiracy driving the plot, and we’re slowly introduced to it… and then suddenly Jean Reno tells us how it all works, despite obviously having had no opportunity to learn that information. According to a featurette on the DVD, the film-makers were aware of this, but decided it was better to leave the viewer confused than slow down the pace of the movie. Yeah right…

The Incredibles, dir. Brad Bird (2004), was another film which impressed me when I first saw it several years ago. And it’s just as good the second time round. Perhaps the pro-family message is a bit heavy-handed, but the jokes are funny and it all looks pretty cool. Especially Syndrome’s secret island base, which seems to include bits and pieces of evil villains’ secret bases from Bond to Flint.

The City Of Ember, dir. Gil Kenan (2008), is a kids’ film based on a YA novel by Jeanne Duprau. Which I’ve never read. The eponymous city is an underground town, built and settled 200 years ago for reasons its inhabitants now no longer remember. In fact, they’ve even forgotten there is a world outside Ember. Happily, the builders thought this might happen and created a locked box to be handed from mayor to mayor. At some point in the future, it would open and explain how to leave Ember for the outside world. But the box has been lost. But then Lina Mayfleet stumbles across the mayor’s theft of the city’s stores, and the lost box – which is now open. With the help of friend Doon Harrow, they escape the city and discover the open air. At one point in the film, the city is attacked by a giant mole. Doon also finds a giant moth. So I kept on expecting Lina and Doon to discover that the Emberites were actually miniaturised humans. Only they’re not. The City Of Ember was mildly entertaining, but the fruitless wait for that other shoe to drop spoiled it for me.

The Piano Teacher (2001) and Time Of The Wolf (2003), dir. Michael Haneke, are two of the films from The Michael Haneke Collection DVD boxed set I bought cheap last month. The Piano Teacher is based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek and is… quite disturbing. Isabelle Huppert plays the title role, a sexually repressed piano teacher at a Viennese conservatory. A male student falls for her and badgers her into entering into a relationship with him. She eventually acquiesces, but the result is not what he expected. At all. A difficult film to watch. Huppert is astonishing in it. Thankfully, Time Of The Wolf is a less harrowing movie. Although not by much. It’s set after some unspecified holocaust. Not a great deal happens – the film is mostly days in the lives of a group of refugees at some country railway halt. They fight, they argue, they starve, they bargain with passing bandits. There is no hope, no reason for optimism. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which I wrote about here) is not dissimilar to it.

W., dir. Oliver Stone (2008), I watched and reviewed for

Fighter, dir. Natasha Arthy (2007), I also watched and reviewed for

Lifeboat, Alfred Hitchcock (1941). I’m a big fan of Hitchcock’s films. I consider him the most consistently entertaining director ever, and Lifeboat is a case in point. It’s WWII, a ship en route to the US across the Atlantic is torpedoed by a U-boat, and a handful of survivors manage to clamber aboard a lifeboat. Also rescued is a crewman from the U-boat, which was destroyed by the ship before it sank. The film is set entirely on that lifeboat, and it’s gripping drama throughout. They don’t, as they say, make them like this anymore.

Femme Fatale, dir. Brian de Palma (2002), was a re-watch. This film was never released in the UK for some reason, so I ended up buying a Region 1 copy off someone on eBay. It’s the sort of twisty-turny thriller de Palma does reasonably well, voyeuristic in places (which de Palma also does), and given a quick coat of European gloss. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Mystique from the X-Men films) plays a double-crossing jewel-thief who hides out by stealing another woman’s identity. She returns to Paris years later as the wife of the US ambassador, and Antonio Banderas is the paparazzi who inadvertently blows her cover. Not a routine thriller, but not altogether memorable either.


Reading Challenge #5 – The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison

I don’t know why I thought the books on my reading challenge for this year could ever be considered sf classics. They’re not. They’re just sf novels I really enjoyed as a young teenager. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to me that this challenge is turning out to be little more than me poisoning the well of my own early years as a science fiction fan. I’m older now and a more discerning reader. And these books I’ve been reading, which have sat on my book-shelves for nearly thirty years… well, they’re proving to be not very good at all. I can sort of understand why I liked them as a kid, but that doesn’t make them good books.

After all, what kid can resist a character like Slippery Jim diGriz in Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat? He’s a master thief who’s been co-opted by the Special Corps, the interstellar organisation which catches master thieves. Set a thief to catch a thief. There is something appealing about a hero who not only marches to a different drum but, once made a member of the band, still takes advantage of his new position. Well, perhaps it wouldn’t appeal to schoolyard bullies and the like. But to impressionable young sf fans….

So it’s a shame that The Stainless Steel Rat fails on so many other levels. The genre is so much more rigorous now than it was back in the 1960s. DiGriz’s universe is pretty much the West of the mid-20th Century with added spaceships and robots. All the characters smoke like chimneys, computers use punched cards, records are made on paper and stored in filing cabinets, cameras use film…. There’s almost no invention on display. Harrison has just wheeled out a couple of sf tropes in order to call his book science fiction.

After all, diGriz could have been caught by some secret branch of Interpol. And the plot of The Stainless Steel Rat could be easily translated into present day (as was). The story goes something like this:

During a bank robbery, diGriz is captured and recruited by the Special Corps. Chafing to escape from his training, he trawls through the Corps’ records and discovers that someone is building a banned battleship, cunningly disguised as a giant freighter, on a backwater world of the federation. DiGriz is tasked to discover who the ship-builder is. It transpires that all those on the world involved in the construction is an innocent dupe, except one man and his female assistant. But they manage to escape in the battleship before diGriz can stop them. So diGriz sets off in pursuit….

Instead of a space battleship, make that some sort of missile destroyer or something, and you could pretty much tell the same story set in 1961 or 2009. So why bother to make it science fiction? There’s no central idea, there’s no exploration of a central idea.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the gender politics in the book appear to resemble 1921 more than 1961. The villainess of the piece is Angelina, a beautiful psychopath. The reason for her psychopathy, it is explained, is that she was originally ugly:

To be a man and ugly is bad enough. What must it feel like to be a woman? How do you live when mirrors are your enemies and people turn away rather than look at you? (p 138)

The horror of it: an ugly woman. Clearly it’s enough to twist the most stable of minds. And yet, throughout the book, both diGriz and Angelina frequently change their appearance. Sometimes it’s merely disguise; other times it requires surgery. Which suggests such techniques are relatively common. So why was Angelina ugly long enough for it to trigger her psychopathic tendencies?

It’s a silly quibble because Harrison’s stated explanation for Angelina’s murderous nature is offensive tosh. And to add further insult, Angelina is now beautiful but still has to work through men – cf the mention of “female assistant” above. The same happens later in the book – diGriz’s universe is clearly a man’s universe, and women only get to play secretaries, wives, whores and manipulative mistresses.

Oh, and did I mention that diGriz falls in love with Angelina? Because she’s beautiful, intelligent and a “stainless steel rat” like himself. Never mind the fact that she kills people for no reason at all, she’s gorgeous and clever…. If there’s an argument for sf being a young boy’s genre, then The Stainless Steel Rat provides plenty of ammunition.

After reading Alan Dean Foster’s The Tar-Aiym Krang last month (see here), I wondered why I’d bother hanging on for so long to the five Pip & Flinx books I own. But The Stainless Steel Rat is much worse. And I own seven of the books from the series. They’ll be going on eBay, then.

Incidentally, Harry Harrison was this year made the SFWA’s “Damon Knight Grand Master”.